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RagFest 2012 Reviews

Day One of RagFest 2012 rings true to ragtime
By Eric Marchese

After an 18-month hiatus, RagFest returned to Southern California with its first springtime festival and with an unusual new format: The first day of the festival was held at Steamers Jazz Club and Café, the festival’s usual downtown headquarters, while the second day of the event was moved to the nearby Muckenthaler Cultural Center. Another change was that all of the performances from both days were performed free of charge to the public.

The Steamers sets unfolded smoothly, offering ragtime fans a tremendously diverse and eclectic mixture of vintage ragtime, both familiar and obscure; vocal ragtime selections; contemporary ragtime compositions; and music that is related to, yet one or two steps removed from, pure ragtime. Because of the passing of RagFest veteran Nan Bostick less than a month before the festival weekend of April 14-15, founding artistic director Eric Marchese announced in his opening remarks that this year’s festival would be dedicated to Nan.

Making his RagFest debut, Gary Rametta christened the event and opened his set with a wonderful rendition of Bix Beiderbecke’s “In the Dark,” then followed with Joe Lamb’s “Ragtime Reverie,” one of two previously unknown Lamb rags discovered in the 1990s. Up next: David Thomas Roberts’ “Roberto Clemente,” a performance, Gary announced, dedicated to Nan Bostick. Joplin’s immortal “Gladiolus Rag” and Carlos Posadas’ “El Biguá” followed. Gary wrapped up a superb set with Roberts’ “Waterloo Girls,” Duke Ellington’s “Reflections in D” and the deeply moving Roberts masterpiece “Through the Bottomlands.”

Shirley Case dedicated her entire set to Nan, starting with Blake’s sensational “Eubie’s Classical Rag.” Shirley explained that she chose the piece “because I met Nan for the first time when I played it at a Master Class at West Coast. She is really what got me started playing at festivals.” In line with Nan’s research into lady ragtimers, the rest of Shirley’s set was comprised of great vintage rags written by women, starting with Imogene Giles’outstanding rag “Red Peppers.” Next up was Irene Cozad’s “Eatin’ Time,” followed by “Black Cat Rag” by Ethyl B. Smith and Frank Wooster. For the latter, Shirley invited Eric to join her on the second piano. She then ended her wonderful set with two great rags by Irene Giblin: “Sleepy Lou” from 1906 and 1905’s “Chicken Chowder.” Shirley made the last selection notably by playing it “Nan and I used to do – at first, slow ‘granny’ speed, followed by breaking the speed limit!”

Andrew Barrett took the stage with a wonderful set whose focus was the many great rags from 1912, all celebrating their centennials this year. He opened with “Cloud Kisser Rag” from 1911, written by Charles L. Johnson under the pseudonym Raymond Birch. Andrew sang and accompanied himself on the 1906 song “Ain’t You Coming Back To Old New Hampshire, Molly?” (words by Robert Roden, music by J. Fred Helf) and on the 1912 ragtime song “Fiddle-Dee-Dee” (words and music by Irving Berlin and E. Ray Goetz). Ted Snyder’s “June Honeymoon Waltz” from 1911 was next, followed by Nat Johnson’s “Frisco Frazzle” from 1912. We got a taste of contemporary ragtime with Fred Hoeptner’s “The Scintillator,” from 1999, before Andrew closed out his set with yet another great rag from 1912: “Swanee Ripples,” by Walter Blaufuss and Harry C. Thompson.

Bill Mitchell’s set started with Joplin’s “Original Rags,” the 1899 piece that preceded “Maple Leaf” in getting into publication and whose purchase for the Kansas City publisher Carl Hoffman was arranged by Nan Bostick’s great-uncle, Charles N. Daniels. Bill then delivered two great rags by Ford Dabney: “Porto Rico” and “Georgia Grind.” Lucky Roberts’ “Music Box Rag” and James Scott’s sunny “Sunburst Rag” followed. Bill then offered his only original, “Musty Rag,” before closing his fine set with Harry Belding’s “Good Gravy Rag.”

MC and festival founder Eric Marchese opened his set with two great rags from 1912: Harry Austin Tierney’s wonderful “Variety Rag” and Clarence Woods’ “Slippery Elm.” He followed with George Botsford’s outstanding “Honeysuckle Rag” from 1911, then Joplin’s beautiful and haunting “Solace – A Mexican Serenade” from 1909. Eric delivered more classic ragtime with James Scott’s lilting “The Princess Rag” from 1911, then an original, “Josie’s Waltz,” a ragtime waltz from 2002. He concluded his solo set with a piano arrangement of Nat Ayer and Seymour Brown’s “Oh, You Beautiful Doll,” one of the biggest song hits of 1911, before inviting ragtime vocalist Erika C. Miller to join him on the stage for a set of vintage ragtime songs.

Erika’s set opened with the comedic 1913 song “Everything Is Ragtime Now” (words by Brandon Walsh, music by Charley Straight). Next up was Scott Joplin’s first published composition, the Victorian ballad “Please Say You Will,” published in Syracuse, NY, in 1895. The standard “Shine On, Harvest Moon” was next. Written by Jack Norworth and Nora Bayes, it was first performed by Bayes in the 1908 Ziegfeld Follies. Next up were the two biggest song hits of 1910: Leo Friedman and Beth Slater Whitson’s “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and Shelton Brooks’ “Some of These Days.” Both songs were issued out of Chicago, and the latter became an instant hit when Sophie Tucker featured it in her act. Erika and Eric closed out their set with yet another great selection from 1910: a rousing version of “The Grizzly Bear,” with Irving Berlin’s memorable lyrics a perfect fit with George Botsford’s extremely raggy music.

Vincent Johnson took the stage and delivered a set almost entirely comprised of novelty piano, starting with Billy Mayerl’s great signature piece “Marigold” and Zez Confrey’s immortal “Kitten on the Keys.” Vincent followed with Rube Bloom’s “Soliloquy” and Mayerl’s “Nimble Fingered Gentleman,” then switched to contemporary ragtime with his own recent masterpiece, “Tiffany Lamp Rag.” He closed a superb set with Rube Bloom’s “Spring Fever” and “Sweet Pea,” another of Vincent’s many wonderful originals.

The new trio of Mitchell, Green and Barrett took the stage, featured Bill Mitchell on piano, Jimmy Green on banjo and Andrew Barret on washboard and percussion. The combo, which has performed at recent OCRS musicales, started with the standards “Red Wing,” “…Bill Bailey” and “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree.” They switched to early ragtime with Charles Hunter’s joyous “Possum and ’Taters,” then the Percy Wenrich song “When You Wore a Tulip” and the Jelly Roll Morton classic, “Milenberg Joys.”
Bob Pinsker got his set rolling with two outstanding classic rags: Joplin’s “Searchlight Rag” from 1907 and Tom Turpin’s “St. Louis Rag” (1903). He then accompanied himself on Willie The Lion Smith’s song “Music on My Mind.” Bob then focused on Eubie Blake, with three of Blake’s best compositions. First was the “concert arrangement” of Eubie’s immortal song “Memories of You,” then the great piano rags “Baltimore Todalo” and “Charleston Rag.”

Brad Kay took to the Steamers stage for the final hour, joined by David Barlia for his first set and as The Unurban Irregulars for the second set. Brad and David opened with the wonderful comical song “Pasta Fazoola.” Next up: “Magnolia,” “Is She Your Girlfriend?,” “Take ’Em To the Door” and the great yodeling song “I Miss My Swiss.” The duo’s next selection combined “Chinese Firecracker” and “Diga Diga Doo.” They closed their wonderful set with “Pack Up Your Sins (And Go to the Devil)” and, from 1922, “Operatic Syncopation.”

This year’s edition of The Unurban Irregulars was comprised of leader Brad Kay on piano, cornet and vocals; Andrew Barrett on piano and percussion; Tom Marion on banjo and guitar; Mark Fletcher on guitar; Oliver Steinberg on bass; and David Barlia on baritone ukelele. They opened with the 1925 number “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie!” (words by Billy Rose and Ballard MacDonald, music by Joseph Meyer). Next up was Joseph “Fud” Livingston’s “Three Blind Mice” (1927), featuring Andrew on piano and Brad on cornet. Hoagy Carmichael’s “What Kind O’ Man Is You?” brought down the house, followed by the 1904 number “Poppies (A Japanese Romance).” Featuring Tom Marion in a banjo solo and Andrew on piano, the piece was written by Nan Bostick’s great-uncle, Charles N. Daniels, under the pseudonym Neil Moret. Next was Fletcher Henderson’s “Rough House Blues,” a 1927 number that was performed and recorded by his group The Louisiana Stompers. The Irregulars wound up their outstanding set of obscurities from the 1920s with “Washboard Wiggles,” a 1929 number by the Chicago bandleader Tiny Parham, and an encore performance of “What Kind O’ Man Is You?,” bringing the first half of RagFest 2012 to a rousing conclusion. Many of the same performers were back the next day at the Muckenthaler, helping to make this year’s festival one of the best in recent memory.

Day Two of RagFest 2012 syncopates “The Muck”
By Fred Hoeptner

Syncopation pervaded Fullerton’s elegant Muckenthaler Cultural Center on Sunday, April 15, as RagFest’s initial performance at the venue drew a sizable contingent of fans. The site seems ideal for an event of this nature provided that the weather is clement—and this year it cooperated. The event also included a Saturday performance at Steamers, which I was unable to attend. Performances covered a variety of ragtime and associated musical styles. According to festival director Eric Marchese, RagFest 2012 set an attendance record for the event by drawing more than 500 fans over the weekend.

Promptly at noon, Muckenthaler exeutive director Zoot Velasco kicked off the festival with a welcome to all. Attendees had a choice of three sites, each with a particular ambiance. The main stage (outdoor amphitheater) featured a sound system, an overhead sun screen, plentiful seating, two areas with surfaces especially designed for dancing, and individual tables for consuming food and drink (either from the several vendors or from one’s picnic basket) while enjoying the show. A skylit atrium known as “the gallery,” furnished with a grand piano and temporary seating, afforded an inviting site for listening. Although impacted at one point by noise from an errant helicopter, the third venue, known as the “palm court,” accommodated a small piano situated on a circular driveway with temporary seating on an adjoining grassy plot shaded by trees.

Southern California is indeed fortunate to be home to two orchestras, both of which appeared at RagFest and impressed the audience. First up on the main stage was the Sedalia Ragtime Orchestra of Thousand Oaks, California, which played two 45-minute sets during the day. Managing an orchestra is no easy task. When I first heard this group struggling at the Old Town Music Hall in April, 2008, I had to wonder how long it would last. I want to compliment leader and flutist Cary Ginell of Thousand Oaks, CA, whose efforts along with those of his musicians have persevered and created an authentic nostalgic sound, even if a bit thin when compared to the Heliotrope orchestra that appeared later, which the audience applauded.

The trio of Bill Mitchell, piano, Jimmy Green, banjo, and Andrew Barrett, washboard, then took the main stage. Leading with the classic James Scott rag, “Grace and Beauty,” they continued with a set of nostalgic pop tunes of the teens and twenties. Next, vaudeville visited the amphitheater in the persons of Sharon Evans, possessed of a radiant voice, and Rick Rogers, possessed of a complementary voice and a ukulele. The duo entertained with song, dance, comedy and impressions.

Brad Kay and his Syncopating Songbirds continued in the vaudeville tradition. The “boids,” as he calls them, both male and female, performed an hour-and-twenty-minute set of vintage songs in solo and duet. Janet Klein, queen of cutesy, joined David Barlia harmonizing “Them Piano Blues.” Mikal Sandoval, striking in her black apparel and chapeau decorated with a wide blue ribbon, sang and danced her way through two Gershwin songs, “I’m a Little Jazz Bird” and “I Was a Floradora Baby.” Torch singer Indira offered “Taint Nobody’s Fault but My Own.” Another act, Dutch Newman and the Rhythm Boys, emulated Bing Crosby and the Rhythm Boys in dress, manner, and vocal style in performing “So the Bluebirds and the Blackbirds Got Together” and “Happy Feet.”

Meanwhile, individual pianists and singers were holding forth in half-hour sets at the other two venues. Andrew Barrett pleased an appreciative audience with stylings ranging from the ragtime era—“Funny Bones Rag” by Woolsey—to his own delightful waltz composition “Yara” and my fairly recent composition “Portrait in Rag #2.” Vincent Johnson’s program included many of his novelty piano solos including “Greenwich Witch,” “Piano Puzzle,” and “Flapperette.” Brad Kay asked, “Should I play ragtime at a ragtime festival?” and then hewed back to classic rag with some admirable performances of Joplin including “Palm Leaf Rag,” “Eugenia,” and “The Ragtime Dance.” He concluded with a vocal piece that he had written to be performed by Fred Astaire, unfortunately just a few years too late.

Making his festival debut, Gary Rametta offered selections from a variety of composers including “Alaskan Rag” by Joseph Lamb, “X.L. Rag” by Edgar Settle, “The Girl Who Moved Away” by David Thomas Roberts and “A Gringo Tango” by Eastwood Lane. The youthful John Reed-Torres, also a first-time festival performer, impressed with classic rags and one of his own compositions. Local music teacher and pianist Shirley Case played two sets, including the memorable “Old Adam” by Bill Bolcom.

Festival director Eric Marchese contributed a solo set of some obscure vintage rags and an original, “The Last Princess.” Displaying her remarkable operatically trained voice and winning expressions and gestures, thrush Erika C. Miller, accompanied on the piano by Marchese, transfixed the audience in the Gallery with a set of popular songs from the teens including “Everybody’s Doing It Now,” “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” and “The Grizzly Bear.”

Based in San Diego, the Heliotrope Ragtime Orchestra, formed in 2005 by co-leaders cornetist Bruce Vermazen and pianist Bob Pinsker, specializes in period arrangements featuring a full orchestral sound enhanced by Bruce’s informative spoken introductions. Three dancing couples onstage behind the orchestra added to the show. The orchestra’s offerings included “Cotton Time,” “Grizzly Bear Rag,” a tango by Joaquin Valverde, “St. Louis Tickle,” “Echoes from the Snowball Club,” and others. The orchestra had been scheduled to climax the festival from 4:45 until its planned 6:00 closing. However, timing problems occurring earlier in the afternoon conspired to extend the event significantly beyond schedule, resulting in an unfortunately sparse audience. A scheduled finale, apparently intended to involve all festival participants, was cancelled.

Enhanced by its new surroundings at the Muck, RagFest exhibits a generous sampling of the wide variety of syncopated music available locally and merits the support of all fans of America’s historic popular music.

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